31 Thoughts: Tavares, Gagner blazing a trail in minor hockey involvement

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares battles for the puck with Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk. (Nathan Denette/CP)

• Tavares, Gagner bring spotlight to GTHL
• NHL close to full strength after shutdowns
• Will Predators sell?

I’m not around the youth hockey world as much as Jeff Marek, who’s steeped in it thanks to his talented children. But it is very possible that seismic change is coming to the biggest minor hockey association in Canada — the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

The most prestigious organization in that league is the Toronto Marlboros. NHL alumni include Connor McDavid, the Hughes brothers, Jason Spezza, Sam Gagner and John Tavares. Gagner and Tavares left the Marlboros a long time ago, but it’s clear the Marlboros never left them.

They are in the process of “buying” or “taking control of the board.” I used the phrase “buying” on Headlines during last Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, and was immediately corrected by a couple of people who pointed out the Marlboros’ own website lists them as a “not-for-profit” organization. Others, however, point out that the world is rarely black and white — there are always shades of grey.

The GTHL was caught by surprise, which is a story in itself. Leagues are supposed to know what’s going on at the ownership/board level.

Gagner and Tavares aren’t commenting yet, but there are a lot of people in and around the GTHL who are excited about what they can bring. Tavares is a superstar. Gagner, a 2007 first-round draft pick, has played 855 NHL games and, apparently, sees this as a way to “give back” once his career is completed. He’s got an excellent reputation, and parents are thrilled about the prospect of seeing him on the ice with their kids.

Others wonder what this can mean in general.

Some of the stories Marek talked about on Monday’s 31 Thoughts podcast were insane. Parents paying an extra $10,000 to $15,000 to guarantee their child’s ice time. If that’s what it takes, no wonder mom and dad are going bananas. From there, the anecdotes flowed through texts and direct messages — each one crazier than the last.

Hosting tournaments is incredibly lucrative, and competition for them is fierce. Control of ice time becomes a weapon. I love hockey and I’m not against anyone making money. But access to the elite level is a serious concern for the future of the sport; paying to guarantee ice time is the type of gouging we don’t need.

I stopped playing for two reasons: I lacked the dedication to make myself better, and we went through challenging times that made it financially impossible to continue. I wasn’t going anywhere, but how many others who made the same decision actually had a shot?

Both Marek and I had former/current NHLers reach out for more information, interested in the idea of following Gagner and Tavares. That’s a good thing.

It brings a spotlight.

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1. Reading Katie Strang’s piece about the Arizona Coyotes, the biggest question I had was, “Are the Coyotes under NHL investigation?” Strang reports “two individuals associated with law firm Seyfarth Shaw” met with team employees. Among the questions being asked were “accuracy of financial reports … sent to the league.” The NHL says no investigation, but someone wants the answers to these questions.

2. Steve Sullivan signed a four-year extension last season, and, from the moment the Coyotes announced his termination, this was headed for mediation/arbitration. Sullivan and the new regime led by Bill Armstrong had no love for each other. There will be interest in his services, possibly from Nashville, a very successful stop during his playing career. There must be decisions made on when he can join another team, and whether or not Arizona had legal grounds to terminate him. No comment from anyone involved, but this isn’t over.

3. One of the non-hockey newsletters I read is called TrueHoop. It finds creative ways of covering the NBA, and opens my eyes to different ideas. On Feb. 4, there was a particularly interesting column about a team executive’s conversation with “a high-powered” agent. It read: “The call began in standard fashion: The executive asked if such-and-such free-agent clients were in shape and ready to go. The agent replied yes, several of them were. Good. They went back and forth on some candidates, but both could sense that neither had asked the real question. Nobody had addressed the elephant in the room. Finally, the agent blurted it out: ‘Remember … he’s had COVID-19 already. He might be, um, more employable for you.’”

Later in the column was this: “An NBA general manager who spoke with TrueHoop put it this way: ‘[Getting COVID-19] is, unfortunately, like getting a FastPass at Disney World.’”

This can be a dangerous way of thinking. Minnesota’s talented prospect, Marco Rossi, will not play this season due to COVID complications. New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri admitted the unknowns of after-affects rattled him. But, as cases surged across the NHL, I continued to think about the column. Contenders will add. I ran it by a couple of GMs and they were squeamish. I get it. It’s not anything anyone would say publicly. But privately? If one league is thinking about it, hard to imagine its winter partner isn’t.

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4. With Philadelphia returning to practise on Tuesday, the NHL could have all 31 teams playing for the first time in 2021. Dallas started late, with Carolina shut down before the Stars’ first game. By the time the Hurricanes came back, Vegas was closed. When the Golden Knights returned, it was Buffalo, Colorado, Minnesota and Jersey on hiatus. The Avalanche played Sunday, the Sabres Monday. The Devils and Wild are scheduled to play Tuesday. Philadelphia’s next game is Thursday, then they go to Lake Tahoe. Fingers crossed.

5. New Jersey head coach Lindy Ruff had a great quote after his team’s first practice.

“To have that number of players go out and now a reset,” he said, “I think you could find lots of excuses to lose a game. I want to find reasons you can win.”

There were almost 20 players on the list, with Ruff adding that one coach and other staff members were affected. The good news is that Dallas snared 11 points in its first 14 games. Carolina is 8-2 since its return and Vegas 4-1. These are teams with Stanley Cup aspirations; maybe that helps in some way. The Devils were a pleasant early-season surprise with a .556 nine-game points percentage. That would put them sixth in the East, very much in the race.

6. The most encouraging thing about those records is that team-wide shutdowns take an enormous toll on organizations. Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said he was “scarred” by his COVID experience. New Jersey goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, who went on the list nine days before Travis Zajac, admitted, “My thoughts were, ‘I hope this isn’t because of me.’”

Marcus Foligno had the same worries in Minnesota.

“I felt really guilty,” he said. “It’s kind of like you brought it in here … which is weird because you shouldn’t feel guilty.”

He’s 100 per cent right about that. New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri pointed out the Devils were on each other to wear masks and socially distance, but spread was “not avoidable (due to the) nature of game we play (and the) confines we play it in.”

Palmieri was really honest discussing the last couple of weeks.

“Other guys had to sit and hope they didn’t pass it along to their family members. That’s the toughest part…. It’s a lot of mental anxiety to go through.”

7. Mentioned last week that no one should be surprised to see practice time/morning skates cut down in an effort to limit close contact. It’s going to happen for teams needing to make up games. Ruff: “If a player has played 20 minutes the night before, he might not practice or have a meaningful practice for weeks.”

Krueger: “If it means staying off the ice between game days, if it means avoiding the ice completely other than games for certain stretches, that could happen.”

8. Removing the glass behind the benches is a necessary COVID move, but it’s going to hurt the pocketbook. Make-good ads were put there. Just another financial challenge in a season full of them.

9. Even if the Tokyo Olympics don’t happen, I don’t believe the NHL wants games any deeper in the summer than already planned. Last year’s TV ratings were enough proof. Plus, the goal is to start mid-October. (Sportsnet’s Nick Alberga reported he was hearing Oct. 13, which fits the timeline.)

Chris Johnston has said there’s a buffer of seven to 10 days before the playoffs begin. If that’s not enough, I wonder if we get to a point where meaningless games don’t get made up, similar to what MLB does with late-season postponements.


10. The math isn’t good for Nashville, seventh in the Central. We’ll see how the Predators attack this — do they push to try to get back into the race or begin to sell? Relatively inexpensive pieces contending teams would like: there was plenty of off-season interest in Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula, both of whom are on one-year deals. There would be traction on Nick Cousins, signed for two seasons. If it doesn’t turn around, eventually we get into greater philosophical discussions about a rebuild. Nashville has made Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen (injured now) available in the past, but league-wide money is tight.

11. Granlund is the forward I guessed Toronto would consider. They contacted him about his interest during the off-season, but the money didn’t work. I still believe the Maple Leafs will look for a top-six winger, We will see where it goes.

12. The Alex Galchenyuk trade is a sign the Jimmy Vesey experiment is in trouble. Both players have salaries that can be stashed on the taxi squad/in the AHL, if necessary. It also drops the Maple Leafs from 47 contracts to 46 (maximum 50). Flexibility is never negative.

13. Cassie Campbell-Pascal caught it on the Calgary-Vancouver broadcast Monday night — Flames head coach Geoff Ward lowered Rasmus Andersson’s power play time. He leads the team’s defenders with an average of 3:36 on the man advantage, but was down to just 45 seconds in Calgary’s 4-3 overtime win. Juuso Valimaki got 3:50 and Mark Giordano 2:13. To his credit, Andersson responded with a terrific performance, with two primary assists in 19:31.

14. I’ve heard the rumours that Vancouver GM Jim Benning’s contract is not guaranteed beyond this season. I’ve looked into it. There is pushback on that from a couple of sources, who say it is guaranteed for two more years.

15. Didn’t mind Canuck owner Francesco Aquilini’s Saturday tweetstorm in defence of Benning, Travis Green and the process. Rumours were swirling, and I do think that has an effect on players — there’s nothing wrong with calming the waters.

Some votes of confidence aren’t worth the bandwidth they waste, but I do buy this one. There is a desire to see how this season plays out, there’s no appetite to add salary, and I’m not sure you could do an intensive search/hiring process if you wanted to. Let’s see where everything stands in a few months.

16. I don’t believe Marc-Andre Fleury is available. He’s on fire, rejuvenated. In a year where some teams can’t make it work even with four goalies, why would you move him?

Sometimes, we mistake friendliness for weakness. There’s nothing Fleury wouldn’t do to prove he’s still a No. 1 and he’s showing that now. Someday, however, I’m going to pump several GMs full of truth serum to figure out the truth behind the wild four-team rumours from the off-season.

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17. Pierre-Luc Dubois lasted two games with Winnipeg before going down with a lower-body injury.

“There wasn’t necessarily an event that bothered him that he came to the bench sore,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s just something that wasn’t right…. We’re not sure exactly how long it’s going to be. It might be a couple days; it might be a few more days than that.”

The Jets can’t conclusively say it has anything to do with the 14-day quarantine, but two weeks with limited activity, then ramping up to play? It’s another challenge for Canadian teams bringing anyone into the country.

18. In a year where there’ve been several public trade requests, one executive pointed out this is a CBA violation in the NBA. Two years ago, Anthony Davis was fined the maximum $50,000 when agent Rich Paul said his client wouldn’t re-sign with New Orleans and wanted out. (In that league, players are held responsible for comments made by their representatives.) I’d love to see what would happen if this came up in NHL negotiations.

19. At some point in the next few weeks, expect the NHL and the NHLPA to discuss draft options. I’m all for two drafts over a seven-day span in Montreal during June 2022. Lots of time to make up at Stogie’s. But I do think there’s going to have to be some kind of option (one round?) this summer. Don’t think you can prevent the top prospects from the opportunity to play next fall.

20. The average save percentage is .906. That would be the worst since a .905 figure in 2006-07. Twenty-nine goalies have played at least eight games. Twelve are at least 10 points above the average (Fleury .944, Philipp Grubauer .937, Andrei Vasilevskiy .933 lead the way). Two (Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask) are right there, and 15 are anywhere from five to 46 below. Two in particular, Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen and Washington’s Vitek Vanecek, give it their all and battled extremely hard when their teams lacked depth, but looked worn out by the workload.

21. Overtimes are up — 26 per cent of games are going to extra-time or a shootout. The last five seasons, it was 22 per cent. By Division: 18 Central, 18 East, 13 West, eight North. Somehow, higher Canadian taxes are responsible.

22. Two key Connor McDavid five-on-five numbers are lower than normal. The Oilers, as a team, are on pace to have by far their worst shooting percentage with the captain on the ice. Only once in his previous five seasons did Edmonton shoot less than 10 per cent while McDavid was out there, and that was 9.93 in 2017–18. Heading into Monday’s 6-5 loss to Winnipeg, they were at 8.86. Can’t imagine that will last.

As you’d expect, they score at a much higher rate when he’s out there than not. Because of that shooting drop, this year’s numbers are closer.

(Numbers courtesy Natural Stat Trick)

Monday’s result moved the needle, as the Jets outscored Edmonton 5–4 at five-on-five, although it was 2–1 Oilers with McDavid on the ice. Coming into that game, it was McDavid 50, Oilers 49.

What does this all mean? Logic dictates that he’s got some eye-popping totals coming.

23. Watching Arizona/St. Louis on Monday afternoon, it was impossible not to notice Conor Garland, who might be the biggest bargain in the NHL. Signed at $775,000, he’s got 14 points in 14 games and gave St. Louis all kinds of problems during the epic Blues/Coyotes seven-game showdown. He combined with linemates Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz for 20 points in the seven games — not too shabby against one of the league’s best. Last season, he led Arizona with 22 goals, but played only 14:09 a game. He and head coach Rick Tocchet challenged each other to make Garland an 18-minute player; he’s at 17:34 now.

24. Your first trade is a shock, and some players get over it quicker than others. Cedric Paquette wasn’t himself in Ottawa. He didn’t have the edge, the nastiness we saw in Tampa Bay. His first game with Carolina was more what we expect. I could see the Senators, trying to build a young core, feeling they had to make the move.

25. Jamie Drysdale has five points in five games. Anaheim is 31st in goals per game, the only team under two (1.94). He’s not a saviour, but how long until he gets a look? Really talented.

26. Fantastic moment in San Jose on Monday night as John Leonard’s first NHL goal was set up by college roommate Mario Ferraro. In an interview with Bret Hedican on the Sharks’ broadcast, you could see how much that meant to Leonard. Ferraro’s been a revelation on a team needing fresh energy.

27. The early-season comeback player of the year might be Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat. After 28 goals as a rookie and a mind-bending 41 in his sophomore season, the winger was on pace for 21 last season. (As I re-read that sentence, it’s ridiculous to think that someone could qualify for a “comeback” player award following a 21-goal season, but that’s how well DeBrincat’s career started.)

His 82-game pace for this year is 39. I’m careful with expected goals, as it sounds like what’s available publicly and privately can be different, but the numbers indicate he simply didn’t bury some very good chances in 2019–20. The Blackhawks have been a surprise, and one major reason is they’ve found two lines that really work: DeBrincat-Pius Suter-Patrick Kane, and Dominik Kubalik-Dylan Strome-Philipp Kurashev.

28. Two weeks after revealing plans for a game at Madison Square Garden, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association is bringing their tour to Chicago on March 6–7. Canada is somewhere down the road, once COVID protocol logistics are easier to manage.

29. AHL Toronto added four OHLers on a tryout basis: goalie Kai Edmonds, and forwards James Hardie (Mississauga), Cole MacKay (Sault Ste. Marie) and Keegan Stevenson (Guelph). Keegan’s father, Jeremy, played 207 NHL games from 1995–2006 for Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota and Dallas. The Marlies needed depth, and, with the Ontario season not expected to start until April, the players needed opportunity. Because they are undrafted, were 18 by last September and the OHL currently isn’t playing, it can work.

30. Last week, the Washington Capitals lost their long-time NHL Security Representative, James Wiseman, who died at age 82. Originally from Glace Bay, N.S., Wiseman spent almost 30 years in that position. When I broke into the business, I learned quickly that you had to know who that person was on all the teams you covered. They wouldn’t give you much information, but you could tell what was going on simply by where they were standing and the look on their face.

Wiseman was a good security person and was beloved by everyone in the organization. A couple of years ago, the Capitals players did one of those funny Q&As, with one of the questions being, “Who would you call with your one phone call if you got in trouble?” Instead of answering with the name of a teammate as they did for every other question, they all said “Jimmy Wiseman.” That’s respect. All the best to his family.

31. Non-Canadian blog readers/podcast listeners: We hear you. Canada will always be the prime focus, but I can mix it better.

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